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THE REGIMENT OF WOMEN
"And happier than the merriest games
Is the joy of our new and nobler aims."
- F. R. HAVERGAL.
Miss Mohun and Miss Merrifield encountered Miss Prescott and Agatha among a perfect herd of cycles, making Bessie laugh over the recollections of the horror caused at Stokesley by the arrival of Arthurine Arthuret on a tricycle twelve years previously.
The place was the Town Hall, the High School having proved too small for the number of the intended audience, and Lord Rotherwood having been captured, in spite of the Kittiwake being pronounced ready to sail, and all the younger passengers being actually on board, entertaining a party from Clipstone. There he sat enthroned on the platform, with portraits of himself, his Elizabethan ancestor, and the Prince of Wales overhead, and, in propria persona on either side, the Mayor of Rockstone, Captain Henderson, and a sprinkling of the committee, Jane, of course, being one; while in the space beneath was a sea of hats, more or less beflowered and befeathered.
Lord Rotherwood began by complaining of an act of piracy! After being exposed to a tempest and forced to put in for supplies, here he was captured, and called upon to distribute prizes! He perceived that it was a new act of aggression on the part of the ladies, proving to what lengths they were coming. Tyrants they had always been, but to find them wreckers to boot was a novelty. However, prizes were the natural sequence of a maritime exploit, and he was happy to distribute them to the maidens about to start on the voyage of life, hoping that these dainty logbooks would prove a stimulus and a compass to steer by even into unexplored seas, such as he believed the better-informed ladies were about to describe to them.
Rockstone was used to its Marquis's speeches, and always enjoyed them; and he handed the prize-books to the recipients with a shake of the hand, and a word or two of congratulation appropriate to each, especially when he knew their names; and then he declared that they were about to hear what education was good for, much better than from himself, from such noted examples as Miss Arthuret and Miss Merrifield, better known to them as Mesa. Wherewith he waved forward Miss Arthuret, a slight, youthful-looking lady, fashionably attired, and made his escape with rapid foot and hasty nods, almost furtively, while the audience were clapping her.
She spoke with voice and utterance notably superior to his well-known halting periods, scarcely saved by long training and use from being a stutter. The female population eagerly listened, while she painted in vivid colours the aim of education, in raising the status of women, and extending their spheres not only of influence in the occult manner which had hitherto been their way of working through others, but in an open manner, which compelled attention; and she dwelt on certain brilliant achievements of women, and of others which stood before them, and towards which their education, passing out of the old grooves, was preparing them to take their place among men, and temper their harshness and indifference to suffering with the laws of mercy and humanity, speaking with an authority and equality such as should ensure attention, no longer in home and nursery whispering alone, but with open face asserting and claiming justice for the weakest.
It was a powerful and effective speech; and Agatha's eye lighted with enthusiasm, as did those of several others of the elder scholars and younger teachers, as these high aims were unfolded to them.
Then followed Elizabeth Merrifield, not contradictory, but recognising what wide fields had been opened to womanhood, dwelling on such being the work of Christianity, which had always tended to repress the power of brute animal strength and jealousy, and to give preponderance to the force of character and the just influence of sweet homely affection. Exceptional flashes, even in heathen lands, and still more under the Divine guidance of the Israelites, showed what women were capable of; and ever since a woman had been the chosen instrument of the mystery of the Incarnation, the Church, the chosen emblem of the union of humanity with her Lord, had gradually purified and exalted the sex by training them through the duties of mercy, of wifehood and motherhood, to be capable of undertaking and fulfilling higher and more extensive tasks, always by the appointment and with the help of Him who had increased their outside powers, for the sake of the weaker ones of His flock. What might, by His will, in the government and politics of the country, be put into their hands, no one could tell; but it was right to be prepared for it, by extending their intellectual ability and knowledge of the past, as well as of the laws of physical nature--all, in short, that modern education aimed at opening young minds to pursue with growing faculties. This was what made her rejoice in the studies here followed with good success, as the prizes testified so pleasantly; and she trusted that the cultivation, which here went on so prosperously, was leading--if she might use old well-accustomed words--to the advancement of God's glory, the good of His Church, aye! and to the safety, honour, and welfare of our Sovereign and her dominions.
The words brought tears of feeling into the eyes of some; but Jane Mohun could not help observing, "Ah! I was afraid you were going to hold up to us the example of the ants and bees, where the old maids do all the working and fighting and governing! Don't make Gillian regret that she is falling away from the spinsterhood."
"Come, Aunt Jane, Bessie never did make it the praise of spinsters. I am sure married women can do as much as spinsters, and have more weight," said Gillian, facing round gallantly, and winning the approval of her aunt and of Bessie. There was no doubt but that since her engagement she had been much quieter and less opinionative.
With what different sensations the same occasion may be attended! To Bessie Merrifield, the primary object was, as ever, woman's work, especially her own, for the Church; and the actual business absorbed her. In spite of her evenings' talk to her Aunt Lilias, and the sad and painful recollections it had aroused, still her only look at Magdalen Prescott's face was one half of curiosity half of sorrow, as of the object of the brief calf-love of one of many brothers, and who had been now lost sight of, with the passing wonder whether, if the affection had survived and been encouraged, it might have led him to better things.
While Magdalen felt the poignant renewal of the one romance of a lifetime, as she caught tones, watched little gestures and recognised those indescribable hereditary similarities which more and more bore in upon her the fraternal connection of the bright earnest woman with the lively pleasant young man who had brought the attraction of a higher tone of manners and cultivation into the country town. No more had been heard of him since his promise to write, a promise that had been only once remembered, so that she had tried to take refuge in the supposition, unlikely as it was, that her stepmother had confiscated his letters. All was a blank since that last stolen kiss; and the wonder whether she could by any means discover anything further from Lady Merrifield or Gillian, so occupied her that she hardly heard the tenor of the two speeches, and did not observe Agatha's glowing cheeks and burning eyes, which might have told her that this was one of the moments which direct the current of life.
When Hubert Delrio came up in the evening he was curious to hear about the meeting. His young landlady, who had been a High School girl for a short time, thought Miss Arthuret's speech the most beautiful discourse that ever was spoken; while other reports said that Lady Flight and Miss Mohun were very much shocked, and thought it unwholesome, not to say dangerous; and he wanted to know the meaning of it. Magdalen was quite dismayed to find how entirely her attention had been absent, and how little account she could give of what had passed by her like the wind; but she need not have been at a loss, for Agatha, with sparkling eyes and clasped hands, burst out into a very able and spirited abstract of the speech, and the future it portrayed, showing perhaps more enthusiasm than the practised public speaker thought it prudent to manifest.
"I see," said Hubert with something of a smile, "you ladies are charmed with the great future opened to you."
"I'm sure," said Vera, perhaps a little nettled by attention paid so long to Agatha, "I can't see the sense of it all; I think a woman is made just to love her husband, and be his pet, without all that fuss about societies, and speeches and learning and fuss!" And she gave a little caress to Hubert's hand, which was returned, as he said, "She may well be loved, but, without publicly coming forward, she may become the more valuable to her home."
"Of course she may, at home or abroad. She ought --" began Agatha, but Vera snapped her off. "Well, it only comes to being one of a lot of horrid old maids; and you don't want me to be one of them, do you, darling? Come and look at my doves!"
"What do you think of it all, sister?" asked Paulina.
"So far as I grasp the subject," said Magdalen, to whom, of course, this was not new, "I think that if a larger scope is to be given to women, it is for the sake and under the direction of the Church that it can be rightly and safely used."
She knew she was speaking by rote, and was not surprised that Agatha said, "That is just what one has heard so often, and what Miss Merrifield harped upon! I want to breathe in a fresh atmosphere beyond the old traditions, and know which are Divine and which are only the superstructure of those who have always had the dominion and justified it in their own way!"
"Who gave them that dominion?" said Magdalen.
"Brute strength," began Agatha.
"Nag, Nag!" cried Paula. "Surely you believe--"
"I did not say--I did not mean--I only meant to think it out, and understand what is Divine and what is in the eternal fitness of things."
Here came an interruption, leaving Magdalen conscious of the want of preparation for guiding the thought of these young things, and of self-reproach too, for having let herself be so absorbed in the thought of "her broken reed of earth beneath," as not to have dwelt on what might be the deep impressions of the young sisters under her charge.
A few days later, as Agatha sat reading in the garden, two figures appeared on the drive, wheeling up their bicycles. One was Gillian, the other had a general air of the family, but much darker, and not one of the old acquaintances. Advancing to meet them, she said, "I am the only one at home. My sisters are all at lessons or in the village."
"I'll leave a message," said Gillian. "My mother wants you all to come up to picnic tea to see the foxgloves in the dell, on Monday, and to bring Mr. Delrio--"
"Oh! thank you."
"I forgot, you had not seen my cousin Dolores Mohun before. Mysie calls her a cousin-twin, if you know what that is."
Agatha thought the newcomer's great pensive dark eyes and overhanging brow under very black hair made her look older than Mysie, or indeed than Gillian herself; and when the message had been disposed of, the latter continued, "Dolores wanted to know about Miss Arthuret's lecture, being rather in that line herself. She could not get home in time for it, and I was seeing the Kittiwake party on board, and only crept in at the other end of the hall in time for Bessie's faint echoes."
"I was in the very antipodes," said Dolores, "in a haunt of ancient peace, whence they would not let me come away soon enough."
"And, Agatha, Aunt Jane says she saw you devouring Miss Arthuret with your eyes," said Gillian.
"It gave one a sense of new life," said Agatha; and she related again Miss Arthuret's speech, broken only by appreciative questions and comments from Dolores' auditor, to whom, in the true fashion of nineteen, Agatha straightway lost her heart. Dolores, who had seen much more of the outer world than her cousins, and had had besides a deeply felt inward experience which might well render her far more responsive, and able to comprehend the questions working in the girl's mind, and which found expression in, "I went to St. Robert's only wanting to get my education carried on so that I might be a better governess; but I see now there are much farther on, much greater things to aim at, than I ever thought of."
"Alps on Alps arise!" said Dolores. "Yes--till they lose themselves- -and where?"
"Miss Merrifield would say in Heaven, by way of the Church."
"The all things in earth or under the earth rising up in circles of praise to the Cherubim and the Great White Throne," said Dolores, her dark eyes raised in a moment's contemplation.
"Ah! One knows. But is that thought the one to be brought home to every one, as if they could bear it always? Are not we to do something--something--for the helping people here in this life, not always going on to the other life--"
"Temporal or spiritual?" said Dolores; "or spiritual through temporal?"
"And our part in helping," said Agatha.
"There is an immense deal to be thought out," said Dolores. "I feel only at the beginning of the questions, and there is study and experience to go to them."
"You mean what one gets at Oxford?"
"Partly. Thorough--at least, as thorough as one can--of the physical and material nature of things, then of the precedent which then results, also of reasoning."
"Metaphysical, do you mean, or logical?"
"That comes in; but I was thinking of mathematical in the indirect training of the mind. It all works into needful equipment, and so does actual life."
"It takes one's breath away."
"Well, we have begun our training," said Dolores, with a sweet sad smile. "At least, I hope so."
"At St. Robert's, you mean?"
"You have, I think. But I believe my aunt will be expecting us."
"Oh! And then they talk about modesty and womanliness and retiring! What do you think about all that?"
"That we never shall do any good without it."
They were interrupted by the hasty rushing up of Paula, who had committed her bicycle to Vera, and came dashing up the steep slope, crying, "O Nag, Nag, they are going away!"
The announcement was interrupted as she perceived the presence of the visitor, and they rose to meet her, but saw that there were tears in her eyes, and she had rushed up so fast that she was panting and could hardly speak, though she gave her hand, as Agatha, after naming the two cousins, asked, "Who are going?"
"The Sisters--Sister Mena--" with another overflow of tears which made Dolores and Gillian think they had better retreat and leave her to her sister's consolation; so they took leave hastily, Agatha however, coming as far as their machines, and confiding to them, "Poor Polly, it is a great blow to her, but I believe it is very good for her."
"There's stuff in that girl," said Dolores, as soon as they were out of reach. "She has the faculty of hearkening as well as of hearing."
"You would say so if you saw her at a lecture; and she is also gaining power of expressing and reproducing," said Gillian.
"She will be a power by and by, unless some blight comes across her."
"Will me, will me, it seems as if we HAD to do it. Even Mamma, whose ideal was chivalry, Church and home, has to be drawn out to take a certain public part; Aunt Jane, who only wished to live to potter about among neighbours, poor and rich, must needs come out of her traditional conventions, and relate her experiences, and you--"
"Oh, I am only trying to do the work Gerald aimed at!"
"Any way we have our work before us, whether we call it for the Church or mankind."
"Charity or Altruism," said Dolores.
"May not altruism lead to charity?" said Gillian.
"Sometimes, but sometimes disappointment leads only to intolerance of those whose methods differ. Altruism will not stand without a foundation," said Dolores.
"Mysie has been impressing on me, with what she heard from Phyllis Devereux, of the work Sister Angela has been doing at Albertstown-- the most utter self-abnegation, through bitter disappointment in her most promising pupils--only the charity that is rooted could endure. It is just the old difference Tennyson points out between Wisdom and Knowledge."
"And with wisdom come those feminine attributes that Agatha began asking about."
"Yes, softening, gentleness, tact. If people have not grown up to them, they must be taught as parts of wisdom."
Gillian sighed. "I wonder what Ernley Armitage will say when he comes home?"
"He won't want you to throw up everything."
"I don't think he will! But if he did--No, I think he will be a staff to guide a silly, priggish heart to the deeper wisdom."
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